The proposed Consumer Protection Act 2019 moved to a select committee in the House of Assembly last Thursday after a first and second reading of the bill.
Members of the government and opposition both expressed their support for the legislation, which has been promised for years, with many representatives offering suggestions and concerns in a lengthy discussion following the first reading.
Premier Andrew Fahie said the law is particularly important after the 2017 hurricanes, when there were reports of businesses engaging in price gouging for essential items like food, water, cleaning supplies, candles and matches.
Opposition Leader Marlon Penn also expressed support for the legislation, and suggested it should include a provision similar to one in the United States Virgin Islands that he said places a price freeze on essential goods and services during a state of emergency.
Mr. Penn (R-D8) also stressed the importance of antitrust legislation and expressed concerns about The North West Company, the Canadian grocery and retail firm that operates Riteway Food Markets and Roadtown Wholesale Trading.
North West, he said, has the potential to wipe out small businesses.
“We cannot allow one entity to monopolise the entire retail market in the territory,” he said.
Opposition member Julian Fraser (R-D3) also raised concerns about monopolies, specifically in regards to Flow, which he said has a monopoly on landlines.
Junior Minister for Tourism Shereen Flax-Charles was emphatic that the purpose of the bill was to bring down consumer prices, and addressed the importance of lowering shipping costs.
“Today is about getting cost control,” she said. “Today is about effectively managing food prices, which have skyrocketed.”
She added that such high prices are exacerbated by monopoly, the physical isolation of the islands from other markets, and the territory’s small size.
“This restricts our ability to choose and hampers the dynamics of competition,” she said. “This small pool of options effectively allows businesses to enjoy, in some cases, extreme profit margins, while consumers become dissatisfied because of the inability to choose or refuse the products they desire or need.”
She also called for meetings with landlords to address the high rent prices in the territory.
When the bill is implemented, Mr. Fahie said, the VI Trade Commission will be able to receive complaints about possible breaches of the act and to investigate the matter if it decides that the complaint has merit.
Under the law, he added, consumers can also initiate investigations on their own if they feel the situation warrants it.
Mr. Fraser called for the addition of a commission with members elected by the public to implement the legislation.
He also stressed the importance of protecting merchants who suffer from high costs of shipping, competition from wholesale retailers, and “unscrupulous consumers.”
Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture Minister Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said he believes the legislation will help the VI benefit from the money that comes from the financial services industry, much of which goes to government salaries that he said are largely spent outside the territory.
“I believe that legislation such as this will create more trust between the consumers and the business community, and perhaps lead to more business being conducted in the Virgin Islands,” he said.
He suggested that the bill could regulate the markup on goods in circumstances in which government has given some type of concession to businesses for duty-free items, to ensure that they pass on those concessions to consumers.
Both Dr. Wheatley (RD7) and Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley alleged that some mechanics take advantage of consumers, particularly young female ones, by overcharging or charging for services that are never rendered.
Mr. Wheatley (D-9) also touched on the importance of preventing businesses from selling expired goods, while Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone (R-at large) spoke about lowering home insurance premiums.
Mr. Fahie (R-D1) agreed with many of the issues that opposition members raised, and said that his government is currently working on 49 pieces of legislation that address some of those issues and promote economic opportunity and a thriving business sector.